Mar 21 2019

Marcelo Gleiser Talks Science and Philosophy

Marcelo Gleiser is an astrophysicist and science popularizer. I have not read any of his works previously and was therefore not familiar with him. He recently won the Templeton Prize, of which I am not a fan. The prize is for:

The Templeton Prize honors a living person who has made an exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension, whether through insight, discovery, or practical works.

Many past winners were given the award for trying to align science and religious faith, which to me is a hopeless cause. This usually results in an attempt to use science or philosophy to prove a particular religious belief, an endeavor that always fails. It’s fair to say, then, that I had negative expectations when I saw this headline in Scientific American:

Atheism Is Inconsistent with the Scientific Method, Prize-Winning Physicist Says.

Here we go, I thought, another Templeton Prize winner trying to disprove atheism. But I read the interview with an open mind to see what he actually had to say, reminding myself of the principle of charity. I was pleasantly surprised. I have to say I found nothing I could disagree with.

First, that headline is misleading (I know, shocker). Gleiser is not an atheist, but only because he is an agnostic. He explains that the notion of whether or not a god exists is beyond evidence, and therefore the only scientific opinion one can have is agnosticism. You cannot know that God, or any particular god, does not exist in a scientific way.

Now, it must be said that this position depends on a particular definition of atheism – belief in the non-existence of gods, rather than the absence of belief in any god. If you define atheism as the mere absence of belief, then his argument does not apply. I don’t know how “in the trenches” Gleiser has been on social media dealing with this issue, but that is one of the distinctions you have to make straight away.

His position, at least as much as was expressed in the interview, aligns with my own. I have discussed this issue many times – my basic point is that science deals with falsifiable hypotheses. Any hypothesis that is not even theoretically falsifiable is not wrong – it’s not even wrong. It’s not science. Science can only be agnostic toward any such idea. That is NOT a position of equanimity – that the idea is as likely to be true or not. It is also not the same as taking no position. Agnosticism, in fact, is a combination of stating that a question is inherently unknowable to science and taking a position of non-belief.

It is also clear from reading the interview that Gleiser is a scientist who respects philosophy. Both are complementary intellectual tools for understanding the world. It is always disappointing when scientists, especially science popularizers, dis philosophy. They always make the mistake of saying philosophy is not necessarily, but only because they don’t realize they are doing philosophy (usually just badly). Gleiser does not fall into this trap, and explicitly recognizes the critical role that philosophy plays as a basis for science and for thinking clearly.

Further, I like Gleiser’s approach to “spirituality.” I put that in quotes, because it applies to his thinking only in the loosest way. Gleiser is fascinated with the ultimate questions of existence – and he chose to address those questions with science, with astrophysics. But in order to do that you have to know the limits of science, and you have to be able to revel in the wonders of this universe without losing your grip on reality. I think he walks that line quite well. He says:

The point is, to understand modern science within this framework is to put humanity back into kind of a moral center of the universe, in which we have the moral duty to preserve this planet and its life with everything that we’ve got, because we understand how rare this whole game is and that for all practical purposes we are alone.

Admittedly we simply don’t know how rare life is. But it is quite possible it is extremely rare, especially complex self-aware life. That’s why he says, “For practical purposes we are alone.” That is true unless and until we find direct evidence of alien life. We are alone for as long as we are the only life in the universe that we know, and that may be true for a very long time. In any case, human life is certainly unique. Gleiser uses these facts to argue that as a species we should focus on the narrative the human life is special, almost certainly very rare, and something that we have a shared responsibility to preserve.

This can be a very useful approach. Humans are tribal by nature. But if we develop a shared common tribal mythology, in essence if we can get more people to look at all of humanity as one shared tribe, then that could have a positive influence on our politics and hopefully our behavior.

This is a theme that Carl Sagan also hit. When you look at the “pale blue dot” that is the Earth, an oasis of life in a vast ocean of emptiness, you begin to appreciate that we are all in this together. Humanity is clinging to life in a thin skin of habitability on the surface of this planet, and it’s all we have. We need to work together to preserve it and share it.

That is what I always liked best about Sagan – his ability to use the insights and perspectives of science to inform our view of ourselves and the universe. Science can take us out of ourselves, out of the small ideas of our tribe, and allow us to take a big view of existence. It’s empowering. It can be profound. An it’s as close as I come to spirituality.

I don’t believe that there is anything in this world that can meaningfully be described as paranormal or supernatural. The physical world is all there is. But that world is amazing, and life is amazing. We don’t need magic, the real world is far more interesting and profound. Gleiser seems to get this.

So I was pleasantly surprised, by both Gleiser and the Templeton Foundation. That was a nice change from the frequent disappointment my daily adventures into the wilds of the internet usually bring.


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